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Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel CATWS posterChris Evans makes the new Marvel Studios picture, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a strong, exciting and powerful sequel to 2011′s Captain America: The First Avenger. Its theme of bonding with shared Americanism – rightly depicted here as the essence of individualism – echoes throughout the film. There are a few problems, but mostly this movie, released by Disney, makes for an exceptional experience.

First, the problems. Some of the computer simulations, and especially the visually jumbled fight scenes, are distracting and disorienting. It takes one out of the movie. Also, for consistency, it must be mentioned that a sequel should flow perfectly from the original and this one doesn’t strictly speaking; Winter Soldier is contingent upon The Avengers (which I never saw) and this is poor form. The film should stand on its own and instead characters and references pop all over the place that have no prior existing relationship to the lead character and plot. Some sultry superwoman character played by Scarlett Johanson is a major part of the picture and the audience is never properly introduced. And don’t let gushing fans fool you, as gushing fans are prone to do, that this is the best movie ever. It is not; this is a brilliantly conceived comic book hero movie which is powerfully written and produced and well acted, not more than that.

With Evans in the lead, it’s no big deal. He gives the film its power. His all-American good looks, sincerity – really, his seriousness – and ability to portray emotional depth and an honest, upright character exude both what it means to be a captain and what it means to be American. This is crucial, this is powerful and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is essentially like the story of American whistleblower Edward Snowden, this is everything.

Beginning with a man on the run, in friendly competition with a comrade, and in the deepest sense, the movie jogs around monuments to men such as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln – men who were giants in forging a nation based on individual rights, a fact which is at the core of why this leaves other comics pics in the dust. War hero and veteran Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) adjusts to life in the new America of the modern age, where he’s been delivered since the first movie’s time transport. The change allows the plot to take a serious, deep turn toward the inner torment of the solider and, more broadly, those who work for the government. Rogers wonders how he will fit in and he wonders aloud whether he wants to; the more he sees of the new American state, the less he likes it. He dares to doubt it.

The new captain of America is strong, somber and, after a mission compromised by a warrior (Johanson) too eager to serve the state without question, skeptical. The action is swift in the overseas operation and Captain America comes on like a ninja with perfect timing, precision strikes and athletic ability. He’s in top form, or, as an Apple Store employee puts it in a good laugh line, he’s “specimen”. The Apple Store serves as an organic product placement (unlike the Chevy brand) fitting the movie’s theme that the rogue individualist thinks for himself, finds refuge in commercialism and sports the most durable, best gear. When he reports to government security SHIELD boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who seeks cooperation from world security principal Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Steve Rogers further doubts who is friend or foe in the rising military industrial state.

But he never doubts himself. This is why he cashes in on a new friendship with a fellow war veteran named Sam (Anthony Mackie) who tends to those who pay the ultimate price of the military industrial complex. As the fracture in the burgeoning Big Government spreads into rupture, threatening SHIELD’s stated purpose to protect freedom in the country, Captain America comes to understand the fallacy of having faith in the state and the urgency of starting from scratch. As Redford’s distinguished statesman says, with crisp, concise economy: “to build a really better world sometimes means tearing the old one down.” This Hunger Games type dystopian vibe permeates Winter Soldier, which cleverly supplants a mysterious automaton that perfectly represents and dramatizes the movie’s core theme that every individual faces the fundamental choice to get in line and follow orders or break free and think for himself.

Only Captain America sees the big picture and he knows what to do, motivating and activating the few who choose to step forward and reject faith in government – when he expresses consternation that so many have gone wrong, one steps up to say “not everyone” in an emotional scene – and he knows both not to trust everyone and not to discard trust entirely. As he takes on the whole government, with a stirring score by Henry Jackman, he studies the past, including his own (listen for the voice of Gary Sinise narrating at the Smithsonian), thinks about every act and lets himself feel. He sees himself as he is, as he was, in thoughtful and powerful scenes, realizing that his own heroism is a decisive force for Americanism against the villain’s correct observation that civilization is willing to “surrender its freedom voluntarily.” Captain America: The Winter Soldier explicitly rejects sacrificing freedom for security, so don’t expect this film to win Best Picture with a state-sponsored presentation by Mrs. Barack Obama.

Instead, Steve Rogers as the captain of his (and the nation’s) soul runs, hides and seeks refuge from the oppressive state, just like Snowden. He painfully learns the 21st century pitfalls of treating government and technology as a religion with the cost the life of each fellow soldier whom he has had the honor of fighting beside, the leitmotif of this extraordinary cinema series. He is willing to stand alone – he says so, plain and clear – and, in the war between the rights of the individual and the omnipotent power of the state, dramatized here as an epic battle with wings, agility and rationality, he asks no less of each American in return.

The villain, once unmasked, seeks to pit the choice falsely as order versus chaos, just like Obama. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, beautifully portrayed on every level by Chris Evans, depicts what ought to be America’s shining response.

Oscars for 2013

Last night’s Oscars telecast showcased the essence of what’s wrong with Hollywood.

Oscars2013The good was on display, too, in the “Happy” song performance, with its unabashedly bright, cheerful tone, smart, jazzy moves and mixed-age dancers in a burst of energy and talent that matched the song. Jared Leto’s gentle reminder to remember those we’ve lost to AIDS, those who bear the burden of injustice and the single parent who rises above adversity to raise a child with grace, skill and self-respect was moving, punctuated by a refreshing streak of activism to root for those oppressed in Ukraine and Venezuela. Lupita Nyong’o recognized that the performance for which she was chosen by her peers for the highest praise was made possible by a slave, a cold, hard and rational point which was perfect. Sally Field’s tribute to heroism was well done. So was Pink’s sincerely rendered version of “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s acceptance, introduced by producer Brad Pitt, showed why the director understood the theme of Solomon Northrup’s book better than most understand that a serious movie about slavery is superior to a perceptually-bound immersion like Gravity. McQueen asserted that every individual deserves to live, not just survive.

The evening started with an amusing monologue by hostess Ellen DeGeneres.

That’s when the trouble began. For whatever reason, the typically benign DeGeneres made jokes at other people’s expense, putting nominees and legendary stars on the spot – as past cynics have done in these tired routines – and then spent most of the evening roaming and assaulting the audience. A pizza delivery bit was stupid, a photo of a cluster of guests was an equally pointless gesture, and everything DeGeneres did seemed intended to sneer at nominees’ ability and works of art and destroy any sense of glamor. She didn’t host as much as deride, like an overbearing party guest who knocks everything and doesn’t let up. She had help from the show’s directors, who in what seemed like an overly rehearsed production down to the pizza schtick and photo gag, apparently forgot to rehearse how to operate a camera for television. The whole telecast seemed like a closed-circuit broadcast for industry insiders on how not to do the Oscars, like one of those amateur government agency videos that Fox News airs to blow the lid off the latest waste of taxpayer money. The technical aspects of last night’s show were that bad.

Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett, who already attacked Judy Garland this awards season and is becoming as misanthropic as the characters she portrays, said it best when she accepted the Academy Award for her role in a Woody Allen movie and promptly but no less deliberately chucked the Best Actress Oscar as a “random and subjective award.” Blanchett captured both the fact that Hollywood is centered on itself, not on its audience, nourishing ability and celebrating art, and what Hollywood thinks of itself, which doesn’t amount to much. But this view is distorted. People of ability in Hollywood create beautiful gowns and elegant menswear and write, create and produce thought-provoking movies such as The Artist, The King’s Speech, Mud, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years a Slave. Some are newcomers like Lupita Nyong’o, who evoked what was once called the American Dream. Some like Leto, Dench, Hopkins, Minnelli and Redford have worked for years. Many remain undiscovered and they look to the Oscars for affirmation that a commitment to a career in art is possible. Too much of what they got last night was evidence that success will be rewarded with a self-centered snapshot, a piece of pizza and a put-down.

Before the Oscars

Before the Oscars, I attended a thoughtful discussion of what it means to match music to motion pictures, courtesy of composer Alexandre Desplat, who was gracious enough to take to the piano and perform a few selections from his astonishing career in scoring movies at a Weinstein Company event at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Photo by Scott Holleran. Copyright 2014 Scott Holleran. May not be used without permission.

Alexandre Desplat plays Philomena score at the Polo Lounge, Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Photo © Copyright 2014 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Desplat, whom I interviewed about his work and score during release of The King’s Speech, is nominated for tonight’s 2013 Academy Awards for his Philomena score which he explored and sampled in a room near the Polo Lounge. It was standing room only as the Frenchman talked about his distinguished career, including music for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the role of melody and why he likes to integrate melancholy into each of his themes for film. He confirmed that his next project is scoring a remake of Godzilla. But Philomena was the main topic, with Desplat explaining how he brought the fairgrounds theme from the title character’s early indiscretion full circle into the rest of her lifelong journey and the old-age search to locate the child who was taken away. As always, he was honest, frank and tactful about Hollywood’s impossible process for making movies punctuated by proper music.

This is Hollywood’s big night and what a good year 2013 was in pictures. Nebraska gave actor Bruce Dern attention he deserves, though not for that blank slate. Frozen and Gravity made huge box office while further dumbing down the audience. Her offered the opposite: a thoughtful movie which is too abstract. Other good films include the historical Emperor, Tina Fey’s stimulating Admission, the old-fashioned, period piece 42, Brad Pitt’s reinvigorated World War Z, Man of Steel, Last Vegas, Catching Fire, Prisoners and Oz the Great and Powerful while The Great Gatsby, Lovelace and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone were less than great and incredible. Though I have not seen every major movie from last year, and with the brilliantly constructed Philomena in top contention, by my estimate, 2013′s best films are: 3. Dallas Buyers Club 2. Mud 1. 12 Years a Slave.

Dallas Buyers Club is a richly textured dramatization of one Texan versus the government in a dramatic showdown with life itself at stake in every moment. Mud is about what makes men from boys. 12 Years a Slave is Hollywood’s first serious film about American slavery taken in the measure of one man who is born free. It deserves the highest praise. Another picture about one individual’s odyssey into a dark, strange world will be honored tonight during a reunion of Judy Garland’s children including Liza Minnelli: The Wizard of Oz, which celebrates its 75th year. With Ellen DeGeneres hosting again, I do hope tonight’s Oscars do not repeat past affairs and instead toast with glamor to the best movies and moviemaking.



Movie Review: Gravity

GravityposterAlfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is both empty and immersive.

With shockingly bad dialogue between two astronaut characters (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) in an episodic real-time plot that runs less than 90 minutes, it’s hard not to notice that, as a genre, space movies tend to drift into the nil. You notice this during the movie.

It’s not that nothing happens. Everything happens. It’s just not believable, interesting or meaningful beyond the range of the moment. Gravity, which, like its generically titled cousin Frozen, is both highly profitable and overrated based on certain compartmentalized estimates of features such as visual effects or music, respectively, achieves this effect on purpose. It even begins by depicting working in space as mundane. That’s how you know something bad will happen.

The What if… scenario delivers nonstop motion pictures of manned space mini-missions gone inexplicably wrong, from careless Russians and foolish astronauts to lost parts, tools and satellites. Gravity not only spins and magnifies the problems in Apollo 13‘s “Houston, we have a problem…” trope, it borrows Marooned‘s remote, damaged astronauts, removes Houston and replaces the archetypical gung ho astronaut with a bland, lifeless mother in space.

This might be compelling if the female astronaut didn’t also say silly things such as “clear skies with a chance of satellite debris” and “I hate space” and convey the depth of a cardboard box. Bullock’s character is not for one moment plausible as someone NASA would deem ready to go into space let alone as one who could go from inept to invincible. Clooney’s character, too, is not convincing. They are both on hand to more or less portray versions of their own well-worn screen personas. He’s slick and mildly flirtatious. She’s alternately helpless and assertive. Yet when Bullock’s first-time astronaut finally finds refuge in a space capsule after seeing carnage and being uncontrollably tumbled into outer space and faces the prospect of re-emerging into space on her own, there is no evidence of inner conflict.

The most crucial part of what moves her character to act happens offscreen. Instead, she simply does what she does.  Thus, when she gets what she gets, it’s not especially involving. The action is exciting, because thanks to the effects one can sufficiently project the situation and Gravity is well choreographed. But Karen Black’s stewardess taking the controls of a 747 in Airport ’75 earns more emotional impact than anything Bullock’s highly trained scientist-astronaut does here. The character is solely defined by what the picture regards as her flaws – in particular, a lack of faith – which engages her in what’s best described as revelation through space disaster. Praise Jesus Christ or Buddha, or pray or thank the Lord, Gravity‘s magical-realist theme appears to be, and God will pull you down, through and back up again.

Movie Review: Philomena

Philomena posterPhilomena dramatizes an act of force caused by faith and ameliorated by an act of trade.

Throughout the picture, on many levels, two parties exchange values. The plot begins with a young, unwed couple having sex during a carnival. It moves to the young, unwed woman giving birth at an Irish convent, where she has been sent as a sinner. There, she is kept until, as most people reading this know, the child is given up for adoption. The woman, Philomena Lee, a real person portrayed here by the indomitable Judi Dench, seeks as an elderly woman to find her stolen son.

His name is Anthony. For most of Philomena’s adult life, all that’s known about him is what memories she gained during her brief time with her son at the convent before he was taken: Anthony clutching a toy airplane. Anthony with his playmate Mary. Anthony with the toy airplane again. A lifetime after he was adopted by an American couple, insatiable Philomena, seeking answers from the Catholic convent, wants to know about his life.

By all evidence, including an intelligent, adult daughter, Philomena has gone on to live a happy, rich life, working as a psychiatric nurse. But this only makes her want to take stock of her son’s life, what became of him, whether he thought about her as she thought about him, and other thoughts that any selfish parent would think. Through her daughter, she meets a cynical, pompous and pretentious journalist (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the script) who worked in left-wing politics and lost his reputation. He reluctantly hears her story out and accepts an assignment to write about Philomena’s search.

Together, these two sinners in politics and religion set out to find facts, lose, keep or have faith and, locate the man who was once a boy known as Anthony. In the end, what they find foremost are lessons from one another. Coogan’s obnoxious writer, Martin, earns self-respect. Philomena finds salvation. As they venture to the United States, relocating Mary (Mare Winningham) and various people connected to Philomena’s son, their trade – his ability to think for her capacity to believe – allows them to form a mutual bond like that of a mother and son. The messiness of three such despised and low, depraved institutions, politics, the press and religion, intervenes. Through it all, Philomena and her researcher-reporter sort the issues in what amounts to an honest, enveloping search for meaning in life.

Yes, Philomena is that serious and that enjoyable. They travel here and there from London to Washington, DC, exploring belief, gossip, doubt, sex, love and life, circling back to their own innermost insecurities and powerful realizations about their shared, fundamental flaw: self-denial. This is a very Catholic idea and this is a very un-Catholic movie, a fact which Catholics I know seem to sense about Philomena sight unseen. But Philomena, made by the Weinstein Company, is not an anti-Catholic picture. To a certain degree, it holds back on judging the evil done to mother and child, a subtle but serious flaw but more about that later.

The pairings – mother and son, church and parishioner, avenged and avenger – continuously and brilliantly loop until the movie comes to America in earnest and goes far and wide, expanding and opening into bright colors, outdoor spaces and glorious discoveries. Philomena in exploring life and one’s fitness for life finds the holy grail: the United States of America. This sacred ground is worshipped here, with reverence for our philosophical forefathers Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and all things American, including the most frivolous joys such as comedy in motion pictures. In America, Philomena searching for her son is enlightened, ennobled and uplifted and finally rejuvenated – and not without wry observations and real pain and rejection – and, intentionally or not, Philomena recognizes the U.S. for its highest achievement: the country founded on the selfish pursuit of one’s happiness and the liberty to live as one chooses.

Without giving away the plot, this is what Philomena discovers about her son. She answers her own central, driving question about her fitness for motherhood and finds and deposits the values she gains from the trade with Martin. All is bittersweet, and unbearable, unlikeable Martin, too, is finally and rightly put in his place. For its part, the Catholic Church gets off easy and this prevents Philomena from achieving greatness. By controversially taking license with the real facts and singling out one nun, the film’s evil Hildegard, whose morality is fundamentally Christian, Philomena turns the other cheek on the Church’s complicity in the injustice done to Philomena Lee. The true story is undeniably much worse than what is depicted in this film; the magnitude of widespread, institutional conspiracy to do evil to fellow men and women is enormous even on Philomena’s terms. To telescope, composite and apparently fictionalize the abbey’s acts of faith and force to one nun minimizes the pure evil done there. What the Church did to this woman is an atrocity. Pinning it on Sister Hildegard lets the Catholic Church off the hook.

Nevertheless, director Stephen Frears has created what amounts to the third piece of a trilogy in movies depicting deep, interesting women of our times. His Mrs. Henderson Presents also gave us Judi Dench bucking tradition in wartime London as a widow and mother in mourning who dared to bring pleasure to the men who fought for England. His film The Queen did right by a strong British woman who is also the queen of England remaking tradition for the good. His treasure Philomena, flawlessly scored by Alexandre Desplat, delivers the tale of an ordinary Irishwoman who goes against the Catholic Church, tradition and, moreover, the looming darkness of modern civilization, for her own knowledge, enlightenment and happiness. With Judi Dench, as she did as a grandmother in Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat, layering scene after scene of a person falling in love with life all over again, Mr. Frears’ Philomena is a triumph.